The Harper government needs to take the partisan poison out of the country's climate debate and enact new policies or fail in its international commitments to reduce emissions, says Diana Carney, top researcher at a progressive think tank in Ottawa.
In a paper released Thursday, Ms. Carney said climate change has become the "third rail" of Canadian politics, with the government using it so aggressively as a "wedge issue" that reasonable debate has been lost. And she placed the blame squarely at the feet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Ms. Carney is vice-president of research at Canada 2020, a progressive think tank in Ottawa, and is the wife of Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney. The couple will soon be leaving Ottawa for London, where Mr. Carney will assume the position of Governor of the Bank of England.
Next week, Canada 2020 will host a forum, with a panel including former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, to discuss how to "sell carbon pricing to Canadians."
In her paper, Ms. Carney said there has been a "disintegration of constructive debate" about climate policy at the national level.
Noting that the Conservatives had included a cap-and-trade program in their 2004 and 2008 election platforms, she wrote that the Prime Minister then "entirely turned his back on carbon pricing and deliberately obfuscated by conflating the federal NDP's call for a cap and trade system with carbon taxation ('a tax on everything')." That approach "has effectively turned carbon pricing into a 'third rail' in Canadian politics, which is deeply problematic," she said.
In an interview, Ms. Carney said the Harper government has shown more action than its partisan rhetoric would suggest, and noted that previous Liberal governments did virtually nothing to meet emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.
The Harper government made its U-turn in 2009 after the U.S. Senate failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation that had been approved by the House of Representatives. The Obama administration then promised to use the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate industrial emissions, a regulatory approach that Ottawa is copying.
Ottawa is now negotiating with Alberta and the oil industry to impose national rules on the oil-sands sector, part of its long-promised sectoral regulations. Alberta has tabled a proposal to force industry to cut emissions per barrel by 40 per cent by 2020, and pay a $40 levy on each tonne above that target. Ottawa has its own, less ambitious proposal.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Environment Minister Peter Kent travelled to Washington this week to lobby for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Canadian politicians insist the country takes seriously its climate commitments.
But Ms. Carney said Ottawa and the province will have to implement much tougher measures if Canada is to meet its commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. She said Canada is now on track to achieve only a 3-per-cent reduction.
"There is presently no basis for a serious claim that we will meet our Copenhagen commitments," she wrote.
To close that gap, Canada needs some form of carbon pricing, perhaps similar to British Columbia's carbon tax, though Ms. Carney's paper offered no firm prescription.
In the interview, she acknowledged that she and "many others" think that "the purer the pricing aspect, the better" – suggesting some form of carbon tax which is favoured by many economists as the least complex and cumbersome approach to carbon pricing.